One Writer’s “Vacation” in a Psychiatric Hospital

Last Monday, March 17, I said that I was going on a little “vacation” because I had exhausted myself while finishing the novel. The novel had exhausted me, but contrary to what I and others might have suggested, I did not go to a cabin in the woods, nor to a remote, sun-dappled island.

The truth is, I have been in a psychiatric hospital for the past week.

It's amazing how quickly you become used to having this on your wrist all the time.

It’s amazing how quickly you become used to having this on your wrist all the time.

I have had bipolar disorder (manic depression) for over 25 years, and have been diagnosed with the disease for about twenty. For the past two months I had been experiencing what’s known as “ultra-ultra-rapid-cycling”—extreme swings in mood from low to high that include sobbing, irritability, impulsivity, anger, laughter, etc., with changes in mood coming sometimes within time spans as short as an hour.

These mood swings are triggered and/or exacerbated by periods of intense stress, lack of sleep, poor eating habits, or, in my case, all of the above, coupled with working to exhaustion on making my new novel as perfect as I could make it.

The hospital I went to lured me in with photos of a finely-appointed parlor, fireplaces, swimming pools and walking trails; but once I got there, I discovered that those amenities were for the celebrity-centric detox program, not the “Acute Care Unit” with its 24-hour lockdown, which is where I was put.

For a week, I was given new medication and observed around-the-clock by psychiatrists and nurses. My only communication with the outside world was via a pair of monitored telephones in the hallways; I had no access to the internet or any electronic devices.

On the plus side, I collected some great material for a future book. I learned a lot about myself and came to respect my fellow patients for their bravery and support. We watched The Shawshank Redemption (“Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin'”), plotted coups involving TV usage, played chess and Scrabble, strolled the euphemistically-named “deck” (an Alcatraz-like exercise yard in miniature), ate meals together, debated the merits of various medications, took side bets on minutiae including when the kitchen would open, gave each other nicknames (like “Green Lantern,” for a guy who wore only a Green Lantern hoodie) and shared our experiences in group discussions.

A typical room in the psychiatric hospital where I stayed—albeit a little bit more nicely furnished.

A typical room in the psychiatric hospital where I stayed—albeit a little bit more nicely furnished.

The photo shown is of a typical hospital room. Alexas described the hospital in general as “a Travelodge with nurses, full breakfast, group meetings and 15-minute bed checks.” The rooms, as well as the entire hospital, are designed to be low-stimulus, low-stress. Miraculously, however, I did manage to get a little writing done at the desk in my room.

While I was in the hospital, I debated whether or not to tell everyone the truth about where I’ve been and why it’s taking me a little longer than I’d hoped to release One Hundred Miles from Manhattan. And then while inside I met a remarkable young woman (she’d just been diagnosed bipolar; she had been rapid-cycling; and she was mature, talented and intelligent beyond her years). It was she who convinced me to “lay it out there, Chris.” She said I should do whatever I can to reduce the stigma. So, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Thumbnail of the cover of One Hundred Miles from Manhattan (cover by Elisabeth Pinio).

Thumbnail of the cover of One Hundred Miles from Manhattan (cover by Elisabeth Pinio).

However, my doctors’ orders include sleeping, eating better, and not driving myself as hard in my work. So, please be patient with me as I work (gently) to release the new novel. I just want all of you to understand why it might take me a little longer than I originally promised. The hospital stay helped, but I am by no means “cured,” and I need to learn to take things easier.

Thank you for your continued support.

—Chris

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By Chris Orcutt

Writer — The Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, Short fiction, Plays — Editor & Speechwriter for Hire — Avid Golfer, Chess Player & Awesome Wood-Splitter — Twitter: @chrisorcutt

Comments (29)

  1. Pingback: Love and Noir in the Time of Ebooks « ASCII by Jason Scott

  2. Ms Sam Schrepel April 23, 2014 at 3:08 am

    I am also diagnosed as having bipolar symptoms. Years ago, when I was in a car accident, as I was in the emergency room, the staff learned from my medicines that I was bipolar. The situation changed on me and stigma set in immediately. They forgot to treat my physical symptoms, and just pushed medicines for my mental health, which were not even the medicines I was prescribed for but strong medicines like a shot of Hal-doll, which I refused extremely strongly. They strongly protested, but because I had taken myself to emergency services they could not legally force me to take the shots. I knew my advocacy rights, and I stood up for them – and they finally backed down. However, If I had weakly submitted to their strong medicines, I am afraid of the answer there would have been to that day and the days to come. They finally gave me the neck brace that was needed, but if I had of been over sedated, I am afraid of what would have had happened. If we don’t know our advocacy rights, it is easy to be bullied by those that believe in bullying, and that can have fatal results.

    • Chris Orcutt April 23, 2014 at 3:11 am

      I’m very sorry you had such a negative experience. There is no question about it: There is a very real stigma still out there, and it’s more prominent in some parts of the world (and the US) than others. I hope you’re coping well with the symptoms now.

      Thank you for visiting my blog and for taking the time to write a comment.

      Sincerely,

      Chris

  3. Tracy Ponder April 8, 2014 at 11:55 am

    Thank you for sharing. There are no words that can convince the world; but actions speak volumes. Best wishes for you during your journey.

  4. Adam Hasty April 7, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    hello, I also have bipolar and I’m glad to see more brave people like you stand up against the stigma of mental illness. Thank you for standing up.

    • Chris Orcutt April 7, 2014 at 11:46 pm

      Adam: I really didn’t do anything. The truly brave people are the ones I met in the hospital, the ones seeking treatment. Thank you for your comments and for visiting my site. —Chris

  5. Sharon April 7, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    Hi Chris, I suffer from depression and anxiety and it took many years to be diagnosed and then it was before there were any/many decent meds available (I’m 63 now). I am involved now with an organization “C.H.O.I.C.E. Inc (Consumers Helping Others In A Caring Environment). We are a peer organization, which means that all of our staff (and at least 55% of or Board) have mental health diagnoses. One of the big things we fight is stigma. What helps is that everyone knows that we are all “peers”….We have a website (which needs updating …LOL ) http://www.choiceofny.org/ We also have a facebook page under CHOICEofNR . Thank you for sharing your story. I am the page admin for the facebook page and will be sharing your fb post there. I am also going to buy your first book- I have one serious addiction and it is reading! Best of luck…hope the new meds help and thanks again for speaking out!

  6. Shirlee Gentles April 7, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    I am a team leader for Bring Change 2 Mind/NAMI WALK. I wrote the book “Are You Feeding Me Poison?” , a memoir in honor of my son Marshall Fink, who struggled with bipolar disorder. I’ve appeared on numerous radio programs and taped a tv segment on Margie Ellisor’s STLmoms program, here in St. Louis. I’ve talked about my son’s mental illness and of our desperate attempts to help him. My son’s life ended tragically. I too, am determined to end the discrimination and stigma of mental illness and applaud you for your efforts and bravery in telling your story.

    • Chris Orcutt April 7, 2014 at 7:31 pm

      Thank you, Shirlee. I wish you the best in your continued work to end the discrimination and the stigma. I appreciate your comment and your visiting my little website. —Chris

  7. Kathryn April 7, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Thank you for sharing this, I have Bi-Polar also, and have the greatest luck in being a rapid cycler, fun times. There’s such a terrible stigma attached to mental illness, even in this day and age. Will be praying for you, that you find the peace and serenity that you deserve.

    • Chris Orcutt April 7, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      Thanks for visiting the site, Kathryn, and thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I wish you and all of my visitors the best. —Chris

  8. Kristen April 7, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Your bravery in sharing has challenged me. I have a blog that I run about bipolar but I hide it from just about everyone I know for fear it might aid me in losing everything. I guess you could say I play into stigma instead of reducing it. Thanks for your courage as it challenges me.

  9. Ann April 7, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Thank you for sharing your “vacation” story with us Chris. My 23 year old Son has bipolar and was diagnosed at age 9. He also has suffered with rapid cycling…..I have seen his mood change as frequently as every 15-20 minutes, going from intense sobbing to hysterical laughter and back again. It was painful watching, I can’t imagine the experience.

    I appreciate your description of the hospital experience. My son has been hospitalized twice for needed medication changes and it has been a traumatic experience. This concerns me as I know many people will need medication changes during the course of their lives, and they need a safe place in which to do this. It seems to me, if we want to encourage people to seek help and be compliant with medications, they need to WANT to do it…..or at least be okay with it. If it is a traumatic experience, who will want to be hospitalized? It has been on my mind for some time to explore how we can better accomodate those who need medication changes and create a better safe environment. I would love more input from you. Feel free to email me if you are willing to discuss this idea with me. I am a willing advocate with plenty of time.

    I hope you are feeling better and I look forward t reading your new book.

    • Chris Orcutt April 7, 2014 at 3:37 pm

      Ann: Thank you for your comment. Regarding the medication changes idea, I didn’t find it a traumatic experience, but I can understand how some patients might. I think the people at Bring Change 2 Mind might be thinking about this issue: http://www.bringchange2mind.org/. Take care, and thanks for visiting my website. —Chris

  10. Laura Gehrke April 7, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    I recently had my 3rd stay in a psychiatric hospital, although my family knows of my bipolar disorder, I feel the need to protect them from the severity of the symtoms, my youngest sister is wise beyond her years, and asked me if it was a “hard hit”, I told her yes. So little by little the truth is coming out, and with each truth comes more freedom. I enjoyed you sharing your story, may you have peace in your journey towards good mental health.

  11. Marcia March 27, 2014 at 1:02 am

    hi, i had replied to ur tweet about this blog entry… i was finally able to see the words when i tried to see it in a reg browser app (i had used opera browser b4 when i said i had trouble viewing). anyway, i really applaud ur sharing this info about this part of ur life. i am suffering from *many* issues u’d find in the DSM-IV lol. i spent 3 stays in the same psychiatric hospital in 2012 for various reasons. i don’t think the hospital stays helped me, only kept me alive.. it took awhile after these stays to get myself better and since 2013, i’ve been off all psychiatric meds (i was on 4-5 since the 1st hospital stay) and i ‘graduated’ from counseling after doing it for 20 yrs… so i’m in a very different place than i was back then. so i know the struggle of mental illness quite well, i’m even considered SMI (severely mentally ill) by the state of AZ where i live now since 2011. seems like ur hospital stay benefited u as it should and i’m happy for u. so again, thank u for sharing ur story. i hope it helps end the stigma!

    • Chris Orcutt March 27, 2014 at 1:38 am

      It’s my pleasure, Marcia. I hope you continue to get the help you need. Thank you for sharing! You’re helping yourself to end the stigma! —Chris

  12. maria March 26, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    Hope you are getting well Chris! Will pray for you. The symptoms you described, are quite similar to mine! I kept thinking about this, after reading it! Mood oscillations are a regular thing I am facing since a couple of year!

  13. Merri Busch March 26, 2014 at 3:46 am

    I too am ‘out’ about having a psychiatric condition. The more of us who function in the light and manage our conditions responsibly, the more we educate and reduce ignorant discrimination. Power to you, Chris!

    • Chris Orcutt March 26, 2014 at 12:14 pm

      Thank you, Merri! Your phrase “manage our conditions responsibly” is *key*, because it’s when we don’t manage them responsibly that we engage in aggressive, impulsive and other distressing behavior, and that’s when the negative labels come out. Thank you for your comment and for visiting my blog. I hope you return. Best wishes to you. —Chris

  14. Bick March 26, 2014 at 12:39 am

    Chris,
    You are in my prayers and I have always suffered from “anxiety attacks” as my parents used to call them. I think the majority of creative people have what society would term “issues” of that genre. There’s always hope when you learn not to take yourself and life’s challenges so deeply. God loves us all even when we may not love ourselves. Life is not an easy path but it can be a loving one.
    Peace and Grace during this period and after.
    Bick+

    • Chris Orcutt March 26, 2014 at 2:23 am

      Thank you, Clyde. I never understood the trope “one day at at time” until I went in there. Hoping to apply what I’ve learned to the future. Best, Chris

      • Nancy Bogema April 7, 2014 at 5:08 pm

        Please google “I’m Schizophrenic, Doctor, Not Stupid or read The Physician’s Handbook on Orthomolecular Medicine and the article in the March 24, 2014 issue of The New American Magazine.